Canva’s Localization Leaders on Translating into 100+ Languages

Canva’s localization leaders, Rachel Carruthers and Michael Levot, join SlatorPod

Florian is starstruck this week as two guests from his favorite SaaS tool, Canva, join SlatorPod.

Canva’s Rachel Carruthers (Head of Internationalization and Localization) and Michael Levot (Localization Program Lead) join the Pod from Down Under to talk about localization at the Sydney-based design platform.

Rachel and Michael describe Canva’s hub-and-spoke model for Localization, which enables them to run a “[expletive] massive” localization operation across no less than 104 languages.

They talk about deciding what to build and what to buy in the way of language technology, and discuss their language services vendor model, which currently involves a half a dozen LSPs.

First up, Florian and Esther run through the language industry news of the week, which saw a Paris-based RSI study conclude that interpreters find remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) more difficult than onsite.

Meanwhile, Google Translate marked one billion installs by looking back on the language capabilities it has added since launching in 2010. The duo also talk about proposed regulation from the EU around AI systems, which raises questions for MT providers and other NLP operators as to their potential obligations.

Florian then talks about the latest set of financial results from Australia-listed LSP, Straker Translations, and Esther unpacks Ai-Media’s equity raise and upcoming acquisition of US-based captioning technology provider EEG.

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Florian: Rachel, tell us a bit more about Canva? What is it? When it was founded? 

Rachel: Canva is a simple way to create beautiful graphics. It is a drag and drop design tool and publishing tool that is made to be really user-friendly for people like me who cannot design anything. The idea was born from Mel, our CEO. In her college days, she was teaching graphic design to students and they were learning tools like Adobe, Photoshop and Illustrator. They are obviously quite powerful and amazing tools but they found them very cumbersome. They can be hard to learn and they are also quite expensive for folks like students who do not have a lot of money. She thought that there is got to be a better way. Thus Canva was born. 

I believe the product launched in 2013, so a little while ago and it has been on quite the whirlwind international growth journey, which Michael and I are lucky to be a part of with the localization team and broader global services team as well. This is a quick intro to what we do within the global services and localization spaces, which is to grow Canva’s adoption and awareness internationally. Looking over the larger globalization scope from product localization, and working with different stakeholders and things around the business like marketing, product needs, and such to make sure that every Canva user has an experience that feels truly local.

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Florian: Tell us a bit more about your personal and professional. When did you join Canva?

Rachel: I am from San Francisco in the Bay Area and I was working in localization with SaaS companies. I was working with Welocalize on the vendor side and then I came over to Australia in 2015 to pursue my master’s degree in Media Practice Studies. I was going to try to find my skill sets and leave localization behind and low and behold, that is not exactly how things worked out. I was fortunate enough to join the Canva team in 2017 when Canva was in about 20 languages at the time. The first goal was to get, in Melanie’s exact words, Canva into as many languages as Microsoft Word, which turned out to be just over a hundred. That was the first focus for us and the program was born out of that mission. 

Michael: Before 2015, I was not yet working in localization. I started my language career teaching Linguistics at the University of New South Wales which actually turned out to be great preparation for working at Canva with over a hundred languages because we got a lot of exposure to linguistic typologies or how languages differ from one another. That was great because it sharpens your instincts of all the things that can go wrong when you are localizing into 132 languages, at our peak. Then soon after that, I moved to Appen, which is an LSP that was founded and is still based here in Sydney. For those who do not know Appen, they provide training data for AI and machine learning applications, including machine translation. 

That was really my first entry into the world of businesses and technology and it was a fun time. I learned a huge amount from a small group of brilliant people who are still at Appen, still doing amazing work and I was there a few years interrupted by a short stint at grad school in New York. I started in a technical role as a linguist and then drifted towards more business development engineering roles which is probably why Rachel thought I would be a good fit for Canva. I have been lucky enough to have amazing colleagues here and a whole new universe of things to understand and work with so it has been a great journey to this point. 

Florian: Are the teams based in Sydney? Or is it globally distributed? 

Michael: We are globally distributed. We have four people here in Sydney and six people over in Manila. For a little while, we had someone in London until they were able to move over here. We will have a person in San Francisco in the near future so we are globally distributed and rapidly becoming more globally distributed. I should say we have language managers now who we hired over the last two months who are around 16 countries in the world. I would say our distribution is now complete.

Esther: Tell us a bit more about the roles that have around various parts of the world? What is the structure and setup internally?

Michael: Our structure has oscillated over time. We have fluctuated between being a team that works closely together and being a more loosely connected network of people embedded throughout the company. We have more or less settled on a blended approach now where we have core teams and then people who are off working primarily with other teams. Within those core teams, we have a traditional localization team with project managers who facilitate localization of the product and marketing and our content with our graphic design templates. Those project managers are all over the company, they will be working in our support team, or they will be working in our content creation teams, or they will be working in any one of our product teams, our print and partnerships team, for instance. 

Then we have a localization engineering team which is led by my colleague, Ben Lloyd. That team ensures that the engineers at Canva have all the infrastructure they need to efficiently launch every new Canva feature in every language we have, which is a huge task. We are hiring for that team right now so if you are a back-end or full-stack engineer and listening to the podcast, come and find me. 

The third group of people is the language managers. That is headed by our LQA expert, Raymond and those people are in charge of testing and benchmarking and experimentation with our localized products. As I said, we now have 16 native speaker language managers who have onboarded over the last three months, which was a mammoth effort. We have got such amazing people working in that team and they are already having such a huge impact for us. Just giving so much insight and expertise on their own native languages that you just cannot do without having those people in your company with that experience and expertise. 

Esther: Where does the localization and internationalization operations or functions sit within the broader Canva organization? 

Rachel: Our technical home is within the marketing and engagement supergroup that we have, fitting in more along the marketing side of things but when we talk about engagement, there are a lot of product groups on the side of the company as well. Doing things like experimentation frameworks about how to drive engagement within the products. Obviously, localization and global growth is a huge part of that. That is where we as an organization sit but as Michael mentioned we have this embedded model, hub and spoke. We have that kind of technical home and then our localization project managers are embedded in different areas of the business or different groups like our content and discovery group. Whoever is responsible for producing the content that is in Canva, like the templates, the fonts that are needed to design in all different languages, design elements that are local and bespoke as well. Getting into different product areas, like search and discoverability so it is wonderful to have this beautiful localized content in Canva, but if users are not intuitively finding it and it is not discoverable through well localized search, that is no good so we have our colleague considering the cost, all of that. 

A few of our colleagues in Manila are more on that marketing side of things so again, embedded and properly sitting with our email and messaging teams, our performance marketing teams. To make sure that they have the best in practice localization workflows at their fingertips and to make sure that what they need gets done and gets done properly because, as a lot of the listeners of this podcast are aware, localization is not always a one size fits all model. The way that you are going to need to approach it. The workflows, the tools might look different depending on what you are working on. That is the point of having this hub and spoke model with the centralized localization team and localization sits, again kind more broadly in this subgroup called global services. A huge part of which is localization and the quality aspects that Michael mentioned but we have a few other colleagues as well who are doing cross-cutting initiatives, saying how are we going to take our print product to market in several key different growth markets and what do we have to do differently in different markets? It is a bit of growth, it is a bit of localization and that is what global services are. It is helping all of our colleagues achieve their global growth goals and objectives through localization program management, things like that.

Florian: Can you just give us a bit more of the size of things, locales, platforms, how many localized releases?

Michael: We are currently available in 104 locales. We scaled back from 132 a while ago. We are a web-based platform so if you can run a browser on your device, you can use Canva on that device. Besides the web app, we also have native apps on iOS, Android, PC, and Mac desktop, and most tablets. We also have different flavors for each of those platforms, specifically for China, for various reasons. We release new production versions of Canva every weekday on every device and in every language. It is a huge undertaking. There are literally tens of thousands of variants when you combine all of those different possible cross-cutting features so keeping all of that under some semblance of control is just an enormous task and huge kudos to all of our project managers and engineers who manage to do that.

Rachel: We are in 104 languages but we are actually localizing over 40,000 words per month and that is exclusive of the volume that we localize with our template content as well which would add hundreds and thousands. Right now in Canva, we have about 450,000 non-English templates in our library and we are helping to support over 20 localized marketing channels internally at Canva so it is pretty massive.

Florian: This is very large and is this complex to localize? Is it a design task as well in some sense? 

Rachel: Just looking at that size itself. Yes, to answer your question, it is complex. I think the teams have done an amazing job making that complexity into something that is a really approachable workflow. In a nutshell, what we do is we take a template, we are able to extract the XML for translation. We send that off to our localization vendor, it comes back. Popped into a template and then we have a tool that we built internally, which we call RT, which allows us to take a look at the English template, the original template, and be localized side by side and allows a native language reviewer to go in, make line breaks, any tech strapping issues, stuff like that. It allows them to change or add to the localized metadata to make the template again, more easily discoverable and just make sure that once it has been localized, it is still relevant for that market. One of our key company values is making complex things simple, and localized templates have been a wonderful manifestation of that value.

Florian: How hard is it? Especially, when you go into parts of Asia, would you have templates that are only in Japanese or would you try to graphically localize into Japanese?

Rachel: It is a blend of both. We have our localized templates that we have taken from English and localized for all of these different languages. There is another team internally at Canva, the international templates team who works on creating what we call these bespoke market specific templates as well. Their objective is to capture market design trends, markets specific events, holidays, traditions, celebrations and just all the kinds of considerations that you might have on a hyper-local level that you cannot really get from just trying to localize something from English and their work is stunning. We work quite closely with them and they are just an absolutely brilliant team of designers. 

Florian: How do you weigh the build versus buy? You are building a lot of your technology internally. You are sending some of the localization translation work out to a vendor so how do you balance? What do you build? What do you buy? Is that an ongoing discussion or do you have a strategy there?

Rachel: Speaking broadly it is always evolving and I think that we generally start with buy. Things move really quickly at Canva and the rate at which we do develop the product, push ideas into development, we do not always have the time afforded to build. Allowing us to buy first helps us understand better what our needs are and what we are trying to achieve in a way. We generally start with outsourcing the localization itself, the tools, and then once we find what is working, we are able to step back and say, how can we make this more efficient? 

Sometimes it is not about building, but can we create efficiencies, both cost efficiencies and workflow efficiencies by building. What is the long-term objective of, let us say, specific focus if we are looking at localized templates? What is the long-term vision for localized templates? Is this something that we are going to need to be doing in perpetuity? If so, then this is something we should consider looking to build if we can. Even taking the bespoke market, bespoke templates, we are taking a bit of a blind approach there to where we have the international templates team establishing the design voice that we have in these different markets and laying down that foundation of content, but also they are now working with some design agencies and specific markets too, and art directing them to what we need. In order to reach the scale that we need in the time we need, we have turned to outsource some of that as well. It really just depends. I would say that going quickly is one of our core objectives and I think buying allows us to do that. 

Esther: Do you take a different approach to your different types of content? Segmenting it, sending it to different vendors or running a different workflow. Where does machine translation come in? How do you think about the different types of content that you are working with?

Rachel: We are thinking about who the end audience is, where this content is living, and also the type of content we are looking at. The volume that we are looking at for localized templates, speaks to the speed at which we produce things too. Neuroadaptive machine translation has been critical to our success in being able to achieve a high quality, high volume localized template library in a short amount of time. When we are looking at marketing content, for example, things need to be much more white gloved. We have our regular LSPs work on content and the language managers coming into white glove some of that content and make sure that it is on point and that the brand tone of voice is adhered to. 

Especially, as we start looking towards things like transcreation, they are starting to play an even larger role in how things like growth experiments through hyper-localized or transcreated content works. It usually depends on where this content is going to end up. We generally work with about five to seven key LSPs who do take the majority of our translated content. It is usually about what happens to that content afterwards, whether I know it is being put into the product or going to marketing, et cetera. 

Florian: What is Canva’s take on ROI for localization? Is it just part of the whole journey or is there already a sophisticated ROI monitoring metric behind this all?

Rachel: That is always the question in the localization industry, proving ROI and justifying this investment. We have been incredibly lucky with Canva, in that there was always the company ethos to get the product into as many languages as possible. Something I am fond of saying is you have a really strong business case for maybe 50 locales. You can take things to the COO and say, here is what investment looks like but for the long-tail language not so much. There was always this ethos of empowering the world to design through localization, true accessibility. 

Localization has not always been strictly tied to ROI in the same way it would be in many other companies as well. When we are looking at the type of content that is being localized at any one time, we definitely make a point of saying, are we doing this as efficiently as possible? Are there other costs efficient ways we could be approaching this? I think because we have had leadership buy-in from the get-go, we have been pretty lucky. It is a return on investment on putting our money where our mouth is when we are saying empowering the world to design, we mean the world, whatever it costs.

Florian: Just a quick follow-up on that for China. It is always hard to roll out SaaS in China generally. Are you in China and do you have a lot of users there? 

Rachel: Yes, we are in China. China is where we set up three of our first engineering team that is outside of Sydney because of the product divergence. We had to hyper localize that project, which means we had to build it on a different stack. It also had to be behind the great firewall to be working properly and so to set up that kind of team you need the operations to support it. China continues to be a huge focus for us.

Esther: In terms of adapting to any changes brought about by the pandemic, have you seen any sort of changes in demand for SaaS design? How have you as a localization team adapted and responded to any challenges that have been associated with that?

Rachel: Most definitely, we as Canva have seen a huge increase in the kinds of users who are using Canva to make their own marketing material. There has been a huge increase with cottage industries, and folks who may have unfortunately lost their jobs due to the pandemic or who are looking to set up a side hustle or side gig to support themselves and may not have access or may not be able to afford professional design services, brand marketing services. What has been really interesting, for better or for worse, is that Covid-19 has changed the face of what small to medium businesses look like. We have definitely seen that cascade into our user demographics. In terms of our workforce and localization, being a remote team we are probably affected the least because this is how we have always worked. Our teams are always distributed, whether it is the vendors that we are working with or our own team members, we are used to it. We live in Australia so we take calls at very strange hours. We have adapted quite well.

Michael: I am just recalling the immediate aftermath of when the pandemic really became a global issue and it was all hands on deck for a period. We were trying to do everything we could as a company to limit the impact for our users and also to help where we could. There was an amnesty on subscriptions. Anyone who could not pay because of Covid-19 was able to continue with their subscription because it was vital to people’s work. We also produced a huge amount of content for education around hygiene and avoiding contracting Covid-19 that was localized into a number of languages. There was a period when it was not business as usual and there were a lot of different things going on, but then very quickly we moved back into a business as usual because a lot of our supply chains were unaffected. They were remote workers who had always worked that way.

Esther: What about on a regional level? Are there any locales that are especially tricky to go into that you would see as sort of problematic or challenging for that reason?

Michael: There are definitely challenging languages and markets for different reasons. The one that springs to mind is our Arabic and Hebrew speaking markets. They are right to left languages. They are intrinsically difficult in terms of product UI and design, which is very critical to our business. RTL always makes life that little bit harder. Also culturally, we have a huge amount of content that is quite region-specific and making sure that you are culturally appropriate in regions without a Christian or Christian colonial history is difficult because that is the perspective from which a lot of our content is produced. There are different cultural and religious attitudes towards things like alcohol, consumption of animals, and clothing modesty. You have to strike a balance between potentially alienating part of your audience, which is something that we would never want to do and on the other hand, depriving part of our audience of content that they would find useful. You could perpetually curate the experience for every subset of users, but that is also not particularly scalable. It is a challenge that we are trying to get better at and we are doing a good job, but there is more work to be done. I Recruit Talent. Find Jobs

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Florian: Is there any specific challenge of running a localization team as big as yours, out of Australia in terms of liaising with global vendors or hiring localization talent? 

Rachel: I would say it is a challenge. With localization a lot of the industry follows the chasing the sun model and as such a lot of the LSPs have project management hubs in different places around the world, including some that are in Asia and have a much friendlier time zone for us. We have definitely found it difficult to hire the right people, for example for our team in Sydney, they work through a lot of different challenges in that space and to connect to some of our localization and globalization industry peers as well. There are some new different organizations and groups set up now in places like LinkedIn or podcasts like this that we get to be a part of. You should be able to go out and chat shop. Not as accessible here, I would say but overall we are on the East Coast of Australia. As close as you can get to the West Coast of the States, in San Francisco where a lot of that tech space is. The time difference is not terrible, you get used to it after a while. I think the world has gotten a lot smaller over the last few years.

Michael: Just to add to that, we have a wonderful pool of talent here in Sydney so for instance, we were recently hiring on our team and completely location blind. The best candidate that we recently hired will be joining us in a couple of weeks and is based here in Sydney. There are wonderful people here in Sydney working in localization and working in LSPs so it is not the complete desert island that you might imagine.

Florian: What about initiatives? Key things you are planning over the next 12, 18 months, roadmap in the localization team.

Rachel: The wonderful challenge that we always have with localization is because Canva is growing so quickly, we have a chance to localize that much more. With every platform or focus that we are looking at internally, it is another opportunity for us to take on a challenge. Things like our education platform are really exciting. We are looking to localize even more deeply in the next 12 to 18 months. A huge part of what we are doing is also doubling down on what we are calling the fundamentals of our localized product, which are around the three key pillars. Our content, all that template content that I mentioned before, again, fonts, bespoke elements, things like that. The overall UX so the translation quality itself, making sure that search and discoverability are working and making sure that Canva feels like it was developed natively. Then lastly, what I think of as payment ease so making sure that we are integrated with the right local payment methods and platforms where applicable, to make that experience much easier for our users so there is still a lot of work for us to do there. Then as we look to new markets for growth going into 2022, starting that process over again for those markets as well. 

Michael: There are a few other things on the more internal side. We have a long roadmap of localization engineering work to be done. We are working on everything from improving translated context to building an experimentation framework for microcopy so a major initiative is building out that team and making sure we have the talent to make all of that happen. Other things, user education, making sure that we improve the way we educate users about our product. We have been lucky enough to have an amazing international community of designers who teach others to use Canva, but that is something that we can improve on. Also, one of our company values is to be a good human and be a force for good. We have been lucky enough to have a lot of freedom to pursue projects for purely altruistic causes and that is something we would like to double down on over the next year or so. We have supported other teams’ projects to produce Covid-19 education materials and participated in the unfortunately very necessary stuff, Asian hate campaign amongst others, but we would like to initiate some of those projects internally and make sure that we are delivering that to our global community.